Since Southern Adventist University published its article about Homer Dever, about a dozen people have called wanting to carry on his ministry.
To join the mail ministry, contact Student Missions Coordinator Julie Norton at 423-236-2442 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, visit southern.edu/studentmissions.
Dear Mr. Dever,
Thank you so much for your postcard. It means a lot to know someone is praying for you back home. ... I hope you have a wonderful day!
Carrie Francisco, a student missionary in Spain, wrote those words to Dunlap, Tenn., resident Homer Dever. The small card from Madrid, Spain, is postmarked May 25, 2012.
Dever died while gardening on May 24. He was 83.
Over the past 15 years, thousands of Southern Adventist University missionaries around the world have received letters from Dever.
After 35 years as a church schoolteacher, the Ohio native retired and made it his mission to encourage young men and women in the field.
Usually between 10 a.m. and noon, he would sit in the living room of his log cabin -- one he took 10 years to build, log by log -- and hand-write letters and postcards on a round wooden table.
He wrote 50 to 100 letters annually, and they were received gratefully by young people who never met him but felt that they knew him.
"Every month or every other month, we would get an envelope with eight to 10 personalized postcards" written by Dever, said Julie Norton, student missions coordinator at the Collegedale university.
The postcards, containing thoughts about his garden or his black cocker spaniel Snookie -- two of the most important things in his life -- would then be included in care packages sent to student missionaries along with cans of cranberry sauce, peppermint sticks or Valentine's candy, depending on the season.
He wrote without expecting to hear back from the people who got his letters. But when they did respond, their cards and letters were the high point of his day, said his daughter, Ronda Dever. He estimated about 100 missionaries wrote back to him.
When Dever was 21, he left home to serve two years in the Korean War. His mother wrote him a letter every day.
"I'll never forget the way they made me feel," he told Columns, Southern Adventist University's magazine, about a month before he died. "They really helped me keep going."
He and Arlene, his wife of 54 years, were teachers. They always had an interest in children, said Ronda Dever, the youngest daughter of three.
She said her grandparents had been missionaries in Africa and both her parents also started out hoping for mission work.
But once her parents met at Southern Adventist University, got married and started having a family, teaching became their mission, she said.
In 1997, Dever started to write to missionaries from Frontier Missions and Southern Adventist, among others.
At first it was letters on ruled paper.
He would ask how they were doing, would research the area the student missionaries were serving and say, "I know it's hot" or "I've tried this food," and that he was thinking of them.
But in 2009, a year after Arlene died, he had a stroke that paralyzed half his body. After three months he regained some mobility, but he still was impaired enough that writing just nine lines now took 30 minutes.
He switched from letters to postcards of Lookout Mountain, Fall Creek Falls, Rock City -- anything that could remind the students of Tennessee.
"I do most things I ever did, just takes longer," he wrote in shaky block letters to a reader who asked him about his mail ministry after Columns published the article about him.
"[It] slowed me down, didn't stop me," he added.
Norton was struck by his determination.
"He felt strongly enough about writing the student missionaries that even after he had a stroke he continued to do that," she said.
Tekoa Penrose, who just graduated from Southern Adventist with a bachelor's degree in social work, was one of the students touched by Dever.
When she was teaching English in Nicaragua in 2008 and 2009, her team of nine missionaries received a postcard from Tennessee.
"Anything we got, every little mail, was like Christmas," she said.
His postcard was "kind of random," she said, but it couldn't have come at a better time.
They were going through a rough patch. They were discouraged. They weren't sure they were making a difference and just wanted to come home.
But Dever talked to them about his wife and his garden. He told them he was thinking about them.
"Praying for you," he would end his letters and postcards.
"It came in at a time when we really needed the encouragement. We were ready to throw the towel in," said Penrose, 23.
"I'm sure he didn't realize the impact he was going to have on so many lives."